The recent vote within the United Kingdom to withdraw from the European Union has implicitly once again raised the issue of the right of self-determination through secession. In other words, do individuals have a right to determine under which political authority they shall live and have representation?
This is, of course, an almost taboo subject in the United States because of its linkage with the Southern Confederacy and the attempted preservation of slavery in the 1860s. While defenders of Southern secession often argue that there were other issues besides slavery that motivated the Southern states to leave the Union following the election of Abraham Lincoln to the presidency in 1860, including tariffs and government spending, the fact is slavery was the most important catalyst for Southern secession.
1860s Southern Secession vs. Self-Determination Today
Anyone who reads the proclamations of secession issued, for example, by South Carolina, Georgia, Mississippi, or Texas, soon finds that at the core of their decisions to withdraw from the Union was the desire to preserve slavery as the fundamental institution of their societies from perceived anti-slavery threats from the North.
The proponents of Southern secession declared theirs to be a “democratic” choice reflecting the will of the people in these Southern states. But as the nineteenth century British political philosopher, John Stuart Mill, pointed out in 1863, “Secession, may be laudable, and so may any other kind of insurrection, but it may also be an enormous crime” when its purpose is the preservation of holding a portion of the population in perpetual bondage. If secession was meant to be an expression of the will of the people, Mill asked, “Have the slaves been consulted? Has their will been counted as any part in the estimate of collective volition? They are a part of the population . . . Remember, we consider them to be human beings, entitled to human rights.”
However, in the context of Europe or the United States today, for instance, this type of challenge to self-determination and secession no longer applies. Personal freedom and a general equality for all citizens under the rule of law are taken for granted on both sides of the Atlantic, even if rarely perfectly practiced. There is no longer a call for secession for the purpose of maintaining a slave system in place. It has far more to do with the distinct principle of the right of people to decide on the political regime under which they wish to live, especially if they consider the existing one to be harmful to the preservation or restoration of a greater degree of liberty in society.
Government Control versus Individual Freedom to Choose
The most guarded prerogative of every government is its legitimized monopoly over the use of force within its territorial jurisdiction. The second most important prerogative is its exclusive control over all its territory. By implication, governments therefore claim an exclusive right over the political, economic, and cultural destinies of the people under their control. If people may not voluntarily and peacefully separate from the state in which they live, then it is tacitly claiming ownership over them.
Of course, the most fundamental right of self-determination is the individual’s right to live his life as he chooses, as long as he does not violate any other person’s right to life, liberty, and honestly acquired property. In other words, the core principle underlying any free society is the right of self-ownership. The individual is not the property of the state, any collective group, or any other individual. Without this principle, freedom is unsustainable in the long run.
The classical liberals of the nineteenth century believed that individuals should be free to determine their own lives. It is why they advocated private property, voluntary exchange, and constitutionally limited government. They also believed that people should be free to reside and work in any country they wish. In general, therefore, they advocated freedom of movement. Governments should not compel people to stay within their political boundaries, nor should any government prohibit them from entering its territory for peaceful purposes.
Individual Self-Determination and Secession
An extension of this principle was that individuals should be free to determine through plebiscite what political authority would exist where they lived. It should be kept in mind that this is distinctly different from the collectivists’ notion of “national self-determination,” the alleged necessity for all members of an ethnic, racial, linguistic, or cultural group to be incorporated within a single political entity, regardless of their wishes. Thus, for instance, the Nazis demanded that all members of the “Aryan race” be forcefully united within a Greater Germany under National Socialist leadership.
Classical liberalism implies “individual self-determination.” Austrian economist Ludwig von Mises argued in his book on Liberalism (1927) that the liberal ideal would allow individuals within towns, districts, and regions to vote on which state they would live under; they could remain part of the existing state, join another state, or form a new one.
Mises stated that in principle this choice should be left to each individual, not majorities, since a minority (including a minority of one) might find itself within the jurisdiction of a government not of its own choosing. But because it was difficult to imagine how competing police and judicial systems could function on the same street corner, Mises viewed the majoritarian solution to be a workable second best.
Or as Mises expressed it:
The right of self-determination in regard to the question of membership in a state thus means: whenever the inhabitants of a particular territory, whether it be a single village, a whole district, or a series of adjacent districts, make it known, by a freely conducted plebiscite, that they no longer wish to remain united to the state to which they belong at the time, but wish either to an independent state or to attach themselves to some other state, their wishes are to be respected and complied with . . .
However, the right of self-determination of which we speak is not the right of self-determination of nations, but rather the right of self-determination of the inhabitants of every territory large enough to form an independent administrative unit. If it were in any way possible to grant this right of self-determination to every individual person, it would have to be done. This is impracticable only because of compelling technical considerations, which make it necessary that a region be governed as a single administrative unit and the right of self-determination be restricted tot the will of the majority of the inhabitants or areas large enough to count as territorial units in the administration of the country.
Precisely because it could turn out that an individual found himself still living under a political regime not of his choosing even with this territorial conception of individual self-determination through plebiscite, the classical liberals argued that the best way to assure that the state did not abuse him through the use of state power on behalf of some others should be that every government be limited to only protecting the life, liberty, and honestly acquired property of its citizens in a social order based on voluntary association and free-market exchange.
In such a world the use of political power to benefit some at the coerced expense of others would be eliminated or at least reduced to the smallest amount humanly possible. Government, then, would be only a “night-watchman” responsible for guarding each individual from force and fraud under the equal protection of law within its monopoly jurisdiction.
Self-Determination and the Crimean Conflict
Even if governments were not successfully limited to the protection of individuals and their rights rather than a plunderer of what rightfully belonged to them, such a system of localized individual self-determination would minimize the number of any, say, racial, ethic, religious, linguistic or social groups that might be fearful of discriminatory or deleterious government regulations and controls or prohibitions targeting them as a minority within the jurisdiction of such abusive political power.
Let’s take the case of the Crimea. The peninsula has a mixed population of a Russian majority and Ukrainian and Tatar minorities. It was designated as within the political jurisdiction of Ukraine at the time of the break-up of the Soviet Union in 1991, but the Russian government undertook a not very clandestine military invasion of the Crimea in the spring of 2014 that culminated in an annexation of the territory within the Russian Federation.
The Ukrainian government, not surprisingly, declared the annexation and the Russian-manipulated plebiscite that preceded it as illegal and unrecognized by them. The authorities in Kiev said that the peninsula was part of the Ukrainian state and even a plebiscite under international supervision and monitoring would not be allowed.
The Ukrainian and Tatar minorities in Crimea were clearly opposed to the Russian annexation, and, indeed, some within the Russian-speaking majority might very well not have been supportive of being forcefully joined to the Russian state, if there had been a truly fair and open plebiscite. Since then, Ukrainians and Tatars in Crimea have reported experiencing various forms of political and economic discrimination under their new masters in Moscow.
If the type of self-determining plebiscite that was proposed by Ludwig von Mises had been implemented, instead, it might have very well resulted in a political map of Crimea under which portions of the peninsula were the same color as Russia, other parts may have been the same color as Ukraine, and still others parts, possibly where ethnic Tatars were in a majority, might have been a totally different color marking those areas as a new Tatar state separate from both Russia and Ukraine.
Many of the individuals in each group would, no doubt, have then felt that their choice and desire concerning under which political jurisdiction they were to live had been more successfully fulfilled. Various ethic and linguistic and political tensions and animosities in the Crimea would have been, at least, minimized.
As long as a reasonable degree of freedom of trade and travel prevailed among these new political entities in the Crimea and between them and the rest of the world, centuries-old group conflicts would have been reduced, while living the individuals within these neighboring political jurisdictions still benefiting from the advantages that come from division of labor, and commerce and trade.
Self-Determination for People in Scotland and Northern Ireland
Taking the argument up to the present, the referendum within the United Kingdom over leaving the European Union was hardly unanimous. The total vote for withdrawing from EU membership was barely 52 percent. In England and Wales the leave vote was 53 percent, respectively, but in Scotland the vote to remain in the EU was 62 percent and in Northern Ireland it was 53 percent to remain. The vote in the city of London and surrounding areas was 60 percent for staying in the European Union.
Some in Scotland have called for a new plebiscite on Scottish independence so that part of the United Kingdom could attempt to remain within the EU. Voices have also been raised in Northern Ireland for a plebiscite on unification with the Republic of Ireland as a gateway to remaining with the European Union.
Again, the classical liberal ideal would call for a vote within Scotland by towns and regions to determine whether the individuals in various parts of Scotland desired to remain within the United Kingdom or have national independence with or without joining the European Union.
It may turn out that all of Scotland would show majority votes for independence, or it might be only areas, regions and districts within which clear majorities had opted for such a political choice. In the latter case, any areas of Scotland in which majorities chose to remain part of the United Kingdom would be allowed to do so, with new boundaries marking off where England ended and a new independent Scotland began, even if this meant enclaves of UK administered regions or areas within the boundaries of an independent Scotland.
To the extent that the voices for Scottish independence have spoken up partly because of a desire for remaining within the European Union, that hope might be squashed by other national governments within the EU. A Spanish representative to the European Union said that a separate Scottish membership within the EU would be voted “no” by Spain. Why? Because the Spanish government in Madrid is fearful that such a precedent would only embolden those in the Spanish region of Catalina who have been calling for independence from the rest of Spain. And acceptance of new members within the EU requires unanimous consent by all existing members.
In the case of Northern Ireland, this part of the island remained a part of Great Britain following the independence of the Irish Republic in 1922 due to the desire of many Protestants in the north not wanting to be a minority within a Catholic majority state. But within Northern Ireland, the territory is divided into more heavily populated Protestant areas surrounding Belfast and more heavily Catholic areas along the border with the Republic of Ireland.
A plebiscite would possibly result in a large part of the border districts choosing to unite with the Irish Republic to the south, while a smaller area closer to Belfast might vote to remain part of the United Kingdom. And, again, there will likely be towns and districts on both sides of such a new drawing of a border that would, respectively, be part of the Irish Republic or continuing to be part of the UK as enclaves within the territory of the other country.
What can very likely be said, I would suggest, is that if such a plebiscite procedure had been followed in 1922 or any time after that, many of the more than 100,000 people either killed, wounded or in some other way physically impacted by the violent sectarian fighting from 1969 to the 1990s in Northern Ireland might not have suffered that fate.
Self-Determination and the Ideal of Individual Freedom
For the classical liberal, the underlying principle is the right of an individual to live his life as he chooses, wherever he chooses, for peaceful purposes with others in the global society. In a classical liberal world, the forming or transforming of governments would have only one purpose: to eliminate the use of political force for plundering purposes through regulations and compulsory redistributions, and, make government the securer of liberty rather than its violator.
But in the world in which we live, governments rarely limit their activities to such useful but far more limited activities. Instead, special interest groups of various and sundry types use governments to gain benefits at the expense of others. And often in many parts of the world the dividing line between groups wishing to use the state for these purposes is delineated by religion, language, ethnicity, or ideology.
The idea of individual self-determination through local and regional plebiscite can serve as political method to reduce or prevent some of the types of conflicts that have tragically torn communities and countries apart in oceans of human blood and indiscriminate destruction of otherwise productive property.
It could be a powerful, more “individualist” method for reducing some forms of human conflict in what remains a far too collectivist world in which political power is used for predatory purposes, great and small.